One of the joys of having your own blog is the statistics. I know that doesn’t sound riveting, but look at this collection of Google search terms that apparently led people to my blog:
How long does ham keep in the freezer1
Blimey – usage history2
What to call colour which shines every colour3
Is eveling a word?4
Mistress with man in chains5
I’ll gloss over the first four, but the fifth reminded me very much of the 10th-century, viking-made Loki stone at Kirkby Stephen in the Eden Valley (which should tell you plenty about the way my mind works). It was found in 1870, and after a short sojourn on display in the churchyard, it was moved inside the church to protect it from the weather. This is a hefty chunky of sandstone with a carved figure with horns, a beard, a belt, and chains. He doesn’t look too happy about it, but then, according to Norse mythology, those chains are actually his son’s entrails.
Carvings of Loki are very rare across the whole of Europe, never mind Britain, but Cumbria has two. There’s another one on the 11th-century Gosforth cross on the opposite side of the county and there’s a third not far away in County Durham. It’s assumed that Loki appears on crosses designed by people of Norse descent because he was the nearest their culture had to a demon or devil. Not that the Loki of myth was wholly bad, but he certainly wasn’t one of the good guys; his actions led the death of one of the gods. He was ‘chained’ with the entrails of one of his sons, bound to three rocks, and abandoned in a cave under the dripping venom of a serpent.
This is an era when a lot of people in western and northern parts of the UK are searching for a distinctive identity. Scotland, Wales and Ireland have long felt strongly ‘celtic’ and many Cornwallians are fierce in the promotion of their own celtic roots. Yorkshire folk often identify with the vikings, and this would be a popular choice in Cumbria, too – especially if they’re a Cowperthwaite or Birkett from Braithwaite, Haverigg or Stanegarth within easy reach of becks, dales, forces, gills, pikes and tarns6. In fact, increase the surname variety a bit and most Cumbrians could lay claim to this one.
There’s no doubt that the vikings were here, but unlike many parts of Britain we had both the Danish and Norse varieties; in fact, if you want to split hairs, even our Norse vikings split into two groups: ones who genuinely were from Norway/Sweden, and those who came here after a lengthy stop-over in Ireland or the west of Scotland (the Norse-gaels).
The Danish vikings were gaining ground in northern and eastern England in the century before the Loki stone was carved. In 875, a Danish army led by a chap called Halfdan walked over the Pennines at Stainmore, hung a right near Penrith and carried on up the Eden Valley. Their raid on Carlisle was so thorough that the town took a couple of hundred years to recover. They didn’t stay, though, it seems; Cumbria was still ruled over by native brythonic-speaking people right until Dunmail was defeated by an alliance of anglo-saxons and Scots in 945CE.
There’s a little more evidence of people of Norse viking stock in the Eden Valley. There’s a badly-damaged cross, known as the Giant’s Thumb, in Penrith churchyard. It’s possible that the hogsback stones at the sides of the so-called Giant’s Grave in the same churchyard are also viking, although it’s been posited recently that they’re a hybrid local/anglian design.7
The British Museum has in its collection a couple of fabulous silver brooches of Norse-gael design, which were found near Penrith. The word, ‘brooch’ gives the wrong impression to modern ears; they’re not little fiddly things to fasten a scarf. They’re both over 9 inches long and fastened with a vicious-looking spike, which, to quote the British Museum, ‘would have been worn with the pin pointing upwards to avoid unpleasant accidents’8. One was found at Penrith – details unknown – and handed over to the British Museum in 1904. The other was found at ‘Fluskew Pike’ – which I think we can safely assume is Flusco Pike – at Newbiggin, near Penrith9, in 1785. Both date to the first half of the 10th century, the same period as the Loki stone.
There are very few identified viking burial sites anywhere in the country, but Cumbria has one – the biggest yet found – at Cumwhitton. Six bodies, two women and four men, were uncovered under conditions of great secrecy in 200410. They were buried with brooches, swords, spears, jewellery and horse-riding gear; christians didn’t believe in ‘grave goods’, so it’s likely that these 10th-century Norse vikings were still pagan. (But see Jonathan’s comment below: ‘Whoa there…’😉 )
The clincher? A DNA survey completed for the BBC’s Blood of the Vikings programme in 2001 showed that Penrith, uniquely in England, has strong evidence of Norwegian settlement. It seems that Eden Valley folk are justified in feeling a little bit more viking than most11.
PS. I’m somewhat interested in DNA analysis, but add this essential postscript: ‘There was a lot of arguing in the late 90s and early part of the 21st century… but it is now more or less agreed that about 80% of Britons’ genes today come from hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice age’. (David Miles, an archaeological advisor to English Heritage) We are far more alike than we are different. See Face of Britain by Robin McKie (2006).
- Sorry, no idea. Vegetarian.
- Sorry. I will try to use the word less often.
- Got me stumped there.
- Yes, of course it is. Go read the post.
- They ended up at this post, which is about an 18th-century murderer who was hung in chains for his crime. Probably not what they had in mind.
- All these words are of old Norse derivation. They are particularly common in the central Lake District – perhaps the mountainous river valleys and ribbon lakes reminded them of home?
- See Tim Clarkson’s post on the Giant’s Grave over at Senchus.
- See The British Museum. The picture is their copyright.
- Yes, that means they were found at the site of the recycling centre! Once a dump, always a dump…
- I was told last autumn that conservation of these grave goods should be completed soon. With any luck, they will then appear at Carlisle’s Tullie House museum.
- The book of the TV programme is Blood of the Vikings by Julian Richards (2001). Sadly, the book makes no mention of the Penrith findings. This is the BBC report.